Happy to see you! What facial expression is best when you have your passport picture taken?

Are you yearning to climb Machu Picchu, walk the Great Wall of China or see Paris from atop the Eiffel Tower? Before booking a flight and packing a bag for a global adventure, make sure you’ve got the proper travel documents. International trips require a passport, and a passport application must include a photo. But not just any snapshot will do. If you’re thinking of slapping on a giant grin to say "cheese" to take your passport, think again.

Q: Is smiling allowed in a passport photo?

A: Yes and no. The U.S. Department of State regulates the acceptable expressions for passport pictures, and big grins are destined for rejection. However, while the State prefers a neutral expression, its guidelines do allow for a natural smile.

Q: What exactly constitutes a natural smile?

A: A natural smile is one that doesn’t change the contours of your face too much, which would make it more difficult to positively identify you. This means no wide grins that raise cheekbones while stretching and thinning the lips. Producing a natural smile is all about barely turning up the corners of your mouth by slightly tensing facial muscles.

Q: Does this mean that only closed mouth smiles are acceptable for passport photos?  

A: No. Feel free to slightly part your lips and show a few teeth. In fact, this might make achieving a natural smile easier as a bit of space allows for lips to curve up more naturally. Just don’t open too wide as this will drop your chin and alter the appearance of your jawline – which will lead to the rejection of the photo and the passport application.

Q: Any other expression and pose requirements?

A: The State Department insists that all passport portraits be taken with the subject looking straight at the camera – this means no tilting your head up, down or at an angle. Guidelines also require both eyes open and no glasses or sunglasses, even if you wear them every day. The only exception to eyewear is for medical reasons, and you must submit documents of this condition along with your application.

Q: Any restrictions on what I wear in my photo?

A: Yes. You must wear normal, everyday clothes – so no evening gowns or tuxedos unless you’re that fancy every day. Uniforms, clothes that look like uniforms and camouflage clothing are also verboten, unless it’s religious attire that you wear daily. If this is the case, you must submit a signed statement either from a doctor or to verify the uniform is religious attire required to be worn continuously in public by a recognized, traditional religion.

Q: What about hats and other head coverings?

A: The above requirements apply to hats and headwear as well. Both are forbidden unless you have a religious or medical condition requiring the headwear, and you provide a signed statement verifying this. While headwear is permitted in these circumstances, it cannot obscure or shadow your features. This means all headwear must be pulled back to reveal your entire face and hairline.

Q: What if I change my appearance? Do I need a new passport and photo?

A: That depends. Small changes that still allow you to be facially recognized, such as growing a beard or dyeing your hair, do not require you to obtain a new passport photo. If your appearance has significantly changed, such as a dramatic weight loss that alters the shape of your face, then you will require a new passport with a current photo.